Uncomfortable truths: Vichy France

Robert Paxton writes an informed and interesting review (pay walled) at the New York Review of Books, on Vichy’s continuing influence. (Most interesting aside: ” I was surprised myself to learn that Mozart had been little played in France before 1940, and that his prominence since 1945 in the French operatic and symphonic repertoire is one of the legacies of the occupation.” Which doesn’t explain Offenbach’s reference in Tales of Hoffman to “le devin Mozart”–just lip service?) One highlight:

Surprise is not really warranted, however. The historiography of Vichy France since the 1970s has consisted largely of refuting the early postwar view that Marshal Pétain’s regime was an alien import imposed for the moment by Nazi force. Recent historians have reinstated Vichy firmly within the continuities of French history. Vichy France reacted to what had gone before, especially to the Popular Front of 1936, and tried to prepare for a postwar world that it believed was just around the corner. Historians have abundantly analyzed the breaks and continuities in France across World War II—what was radically changed in 1940 and again in 1945, and what went on very much as before. The breaks were exceptionally sharp at both turning points, but there were authentic continuities of personnel and of institutions, especially in technical matters.

In contemporary politics, Paxton notes that the European welfare state was a conservative, paternalistic response to liberalism and Marxism (this is well-known). What surprised me was:

All the modern twentieth-century European dictatorships of the right, both fascist and authoritarian, were welfare states. The current American conservative agenda of a weak state associated with laissez-faire economic and social arrangements would have been anathema to them, as an extreme perversion of a despised individualistic liberalism (in that term’s original sense). They all provided medical care, pensions, affordable housing, and mass transport as a matter of course, in order to maintain productivity, national unity, and social peace. [….] But they provided these benefits in a paternalistic way, simultaneously eliminating any kind of independent worker power strong enough to produce what workers really wanted—higher wages and shorter hours. [….] They replaced unions with “corporatist” committees composed of both workers and managers empowered to deal with workplace issues (though without any say in management). Then they felt free to lengthen hours and squeeze wages. 

And Paxton adds this fascinating footnote: “Since European fascist and authoritarian states combined social welfare measures with low wages and low consumption, their form of the welfare state differed profoundly from the consumption-driven Keynesian model. See a slightly different typology in Gøsta Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Princeton University Press, 1990).”

Paxton himself stirred up the waters of post-war Vichy historiography in 1972 with his book, Vichy France. There’s a nice discussion of Paxton and his influence by Martin Evans from 2001 in History Today.

By Paul Romaine

Paul Romaine is a grant writer and independent curator in New York City.

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